Veteran John Labelle goes through security screening at Federal Court in Halifax on Wednesday Nov. 16, 2011. The court is hearing a class action lawsuit that alleges the federal government is illegally clawing back the long-term disability insurance benefits of injured veterans. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

Feds sued for short-changing disabled veterans and alleged cover-up

TORONTO — The federal government knowingly short-changed hundreds of thousands of disabled veterans and RCMP members about $165 million in benefits, a proposed class action filed in Federal Court on Friday asserts.

The unproven claim, which seeks $600 million in damages, accuses the government of negligence and breach of contract among other things. It also wants the court to order the government to pay the owed benefits with interest.

“Canada’s calculation error has resulted in loss to vulnerable eligible members who rely on benefits to survive,” the suit alleges. “Canada has known about the calculation error for years but it has not taken appropriate steps to rectify its conduct.”

The lawsuit, which has yet to be certified as a class action, follows a calculation error the government admits making in 2002. As a result, as many as 270,000 veterans and others receiving a disability pension or benefits were shortchanged until 2010, when the mistake was discovered.

However, according to the statement of claim, Ottawa allegedly hid the error until this past November — disclosing it only after veterans ombudsman Guy Parent said his team had stumbled upon the problem while looking at another issue and flagged it to the government.

“In 2010, the defendant discovered the calculation error (but) failed to announce this error,” the claim asserts. “The defendant chose not to disclose or rectify the error.”

In a statement, Veterans Affairs Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said she was committed to ensuring those affected would receive their rightful entitlement.

“When the ombudsman brought this to our attention in 2018, we did a detailed review and worked to secure up to $165 million for those retroactive payments,” Wilson-Raybould said Friday. She said she could not comment further given the legal action.

As many as 120,000 people affected may have died without receiving any of the owed money. The government has said their estates would be entitled to the backpay.

In November, the government said it would only begin the repayments in 2020.

“Most individuals will receive a few hundred dollars, while the maximum amount to be paid would be a couple of thousand dollars,” Seamus O’Regan, then the veterans minister, said at the time.

The proposed representative plaintiff is Jean-Francois Pelletier, of Dartmouth, N.S., who served with the navy from 1986 to 2005 and was deployed to the Gulf region in 2002, according to the court filing. Pelletier had injured his foot early in his career and he was ultimately given a monthly, indexed disability pension of about $2,000.

“To date, Mr. Pelletier has not received any of the money owed to him,” his claim says. “He suffered financial harm as a result of the (error).”

Last week, a Calgary-based law firm filed a similar claim in Federal Court on behalf of another former soldier, CBC News reported.

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